Silicon Valley needs to end its snobbery about computer science degrees

I don’t have a computer science degree. There, I said it.

At too many companies around Silicon Valley that would make me unemployable.

I’ve been amused by the scandal surrounding Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson’s embellishment of his resume to include a computer science degree he didn’t earn. I’ve struggled with Silicon Valley’s obsession over computer science degrees. Lying about credentials is wrong, but Silicon Valley’s snobbery on the issue is short-sighted.

For starters, it’s important to keep in mind that three of the best product and business minds in tech never got computer science degrees: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs.

I am certainly not any of those guys. But I can understand markets. I can design business models. I can negotiate with partners. I can pick apart the tiniest elements of user interface design. I can evangelize good products. (And evangelize against bad products.) I can communicate my message effectively in print, on blogs, and live television. I understand user psychology. I get along great with designers and engineers. I am one of the co-inventors of a patent on news feed and social search (which Facebook may have recently bought from Microsoft).

I’ve gone toe-to-toe with top executives, investors, and technologists. In a 2007 job interview, I told Dustin Moskovitz that eventually Facebook would be the place people went to consume news. He told me I was crazy; people only shared silly news on Facebook. In high school, I pirated software with Larry Page. (Yes, that one.) Back in the day, I taught myself to code. I wrote my first program on a TI 99/4A. The picture above is me PEEKing and POKEing on a Commodore 64.

I bring a lot of valuable skills and experience with me to a company, whether at a startup or a big company.

While I’m disclosing things, I should also disclose that I don’t have an accounting degree. (Unlike Scott Thompson.) I took one accounting class in college. I’m 99.9% sure I got an A in it. (But I don’t have my transcript in front of me, so don’t hold me to that.) I know reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. I’m creative, analytical and dogged. That’s all I needed to pick apart Groupon’s S-1 better than many professional analysts.

For many years, I left my major off my resume. It just said I had a Bachelor’s of Science from Northwestern University. That’s true. I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Journalism.

About five years ago, I met with a senior executive from a large Internet company about a role in local. He had sold his company to them and was now in charge of all their local products. We had a great exchange about the space. He’d read my blogs on local. We talked about all of the things I could help them with. I laid out what I thought their roadmap should be for local. He agreed. Anyone who has read my work in the last year knows how passionate I am about local; he saw that passion and he was sold. Then he glanced down at my resume. “What’d you major in?” “Journalism.” “I can’t hire you. HR won’t let me.”

He was a well-respected senior executive who had a candidate he really liked, but he couldn’t hire me because of an arbitrary rule. (Ironically, the same company wouldn’t hire me for a marketing role because I think too much like a product guy.) It didn’t matter that I had run local for AOL or launched some of the first local services in 1995.

In one particularly comical exchange, a hiring manager for a startup chastised me for lying about my degree. “Journalism is an art, not a science. You’re saying you have Bachelor’s of Science.” If I claimed I had a Bachelor’s of Arts, I’d be lying. Northwestern classifies journalism as a science.

I’ve managed to overcome my handicap in the last year through my writing. (That journalism degree was good for something!) Now I get calls from many startups and big companies about joining their team. But all of the exposure has created the opposite problem. I was talking to the hottest company in Silicon Valley right now. The hiring manger said, “I think you’d be a great fit. But I’m worried you’ll be bored. You have this glamorous life writing and being on TV. Why would you want to come here?” The short answer is, I’d rather build great products than criticize bad products other people are building.

Credentials do serve as a valuable signaling mechanism when a candidate is fresh out of college or if you’re filtering through thousands of resumes. If I had to blindly pick between someone who had a computer science degree and someone who didn’t for a product management job, I would pick the C.S. degree, too. But for a more established candidate, the major or where they went to school is irrelevant. I know plenty of smart people without computer science degrees and plenty of not-so-smart people with them.

A similar snobbery applies to schools. For recent grads, whether you went to Stanford or Stonehill College should matter. Thirty years later, this is irrelevant. One of the smartest operations guys I know went to Frostburg State. (He doesn’t put this on his LinkedIn profile.)

I prefer to get to know candidates beyond the resume and their major. Some things are hard to describe on a resume. I don’t even know how to put the most significant accomplishment of the last year on my resume: “Saved investors who listened to me billions of dollars by avoiding one of the worst IPOs ever”?

It comes down to objectives. If your goal is to build a company for a quick acqui-hire, by all means, stock up on people with computer science degrees. That’s what will get you the highest valuations from Google and Facebook.

But if the goal is to build a huge, successful product, you’ll want a more diverse, well-rounded work force. With the rise of mobile and social, it’s critical to have a deep understanding of human behavior on your team. I attribute a lot of Google’s failure in social to its insistence on the importance of computer science degrees.

With the expansion of products into more verticals with entrenched competitors, it’s important to have expertise in those areas. If you’re going into banking, payments, travel, or medicine, you’ll want experts from those areas on your team, even if they don’t have comp sci degrees.

One of the things that drives me nuts about Silicon Valley’s recruiting process is the focus on interview puzzles. Like the 100 100% rational women who have to kill their spouse if they learn that he’s cheated. Although the puzzles test math and logic skills, they’re dangerous because they are based on the assumption that people are 100% rational.

Most people aren’t perfectly rational. Most people make decisions based on incomplete information and emotion. That’s why designing products that appeal to the masses is so much fun.

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